In his famous short story “Signs and Symbols” Vladimir Nabokov describes a rare mental condition. As well as being of theoretical interest, the passage is gorgeous and worth quoting at length:
The patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. He excludes real people from the conspiracy, because he considers himself to be so much more intelligent than other men. Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to each other, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing, in some awful way, messages that he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme. All around him, there are spies. Some of them are detached observers, like glass surfaces and still pools; others, such as coats in store windows, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers at heart; others, again (running water, storms), are hysterical to the point of insanity, have a distorted opinion of him, and grotesquely misinterpret his actions. He must be always on his guard and devote every minute and module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things.
Referential mania, he calls it. Most astounding about this passage are Nabokov’s powers of synecdoche: those darkly gesticulating trees seem to access the autumnal paths and paranoid delusions of our collective index of myth; the quiet conspiracy of the innocuous is embedded so neatly in those pebbles, sun flecks and stains; and, of fear itself—its cycles of suspicion, panic and revelation—is there any better description than that of the cloud’s “slow signs,” transmitting covert information pertaining exclusively to our demise?
When we are afraid we become paranoid, narcissistic and deeply analytical, obsessed with decoding those secret undulations. Such fear, when we find it in the cinema, presents audiences and characters both with coded references to a single fearsome plot. Really good horror movies skillfully wield these fragments of terror to create not so much individually scary scenes as a mise-en-scène of paranoia that takes as its object our very consciousness. This effect, however, rests on a delicate fulcrum of absence and obscuration; pivoting on the ineffable; it is difficult enough to describe, let alone accomplish on film.
David Robert Mitchell’s excellent new horror movie It Follows is a master class in referential mania. The story concerns Jay, a young girl from Michigan who begins intermittently dating Hugh, a boy several years older than her. One night, after they have sex in his car, he knocks her out with chloroform, binding her arms and legs to a wheelchair in a vacant parking lot. Shining a Maglite in her face, he delivers an encrypted prophecy: “This thing,” he says, “it’s going to follow you. Somebody gave it to me, and I’m passing it to you. Wherever you are, it’s somewhere, walking straight for you.” After a few moments, a strange figure approaches them from beyond the darkened train tracks. Hugh flees, driving Jay home and dumping her on the front lawn in her underwear. Before he disappears, he offers a single cautionary instruction: “Don’t let it touch you.”
Though she does not believe what she has experienced, Jay is disturbed and fearful of what this “thing” might be. When the older boy vanishes, she realizes that Hugh was probably not his real name. Days later, as her English teacher recites T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock,” Jay notices an old woman in a nightgown walking across the lawn towards the windows of her classroom. The camera encircles Jay and the music escalates as she packs up and abruptly leaves the room. But she does not escape: the woman—the thing—is in the corridor, slowly continuing its inexorable forward march.
The fear encouraged by It Follows is of a primitive kind, asserting itself not in spite but because of its incomprehensible nature. In fact, the film seems to offer Eliot’s lines from “Prufrock” as a model: “And in short, I was afraid.” This is part of what constitutes It Follows’s aesthetic significance, and what makes it so molar-grindingly scary that it reduced my viewing companion to real, hands-over-eyes movie tears. It is also a film steeped in the generic conventions of the horror cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. Its deciduously oaky suburbs and synth-based soundtrack are drawn from the films of John Carpenter, particularly the first Halloween (1978). Indeed, It Follows is effectively a distillation of Carpenter’s signature poetics: it takes the formula of a murderer on the loose and diffuses it, removing Michael Myers’s mask, his knife and his bloodthirst, and leaving only his inevitable stalking presence in their place.
The opening sequence of the film shows us a normal suburban house on the outskirts of Detroit. It’s dusk. A young woman exits, running across the street, pursued by her worried father. The camera follows. It continues to follow her as she runs frantically back inside, and then out again. If she’s running from something, we can’t see what it is. As she appropriates her parents’ car and drives away, we are left scanning the scene in the same elliptical pattern as the camera, as if turning our head to check who’s behind us. As night falls, we follow her to a beach where she crouches on the shore and calls her father, apologizing and telling him she loves him. The following morning, she lies dead on the sand, her right leg broken at the knee.
This scene is emblematic of the way that It Follows simultaneously limits our perception and encourages our speculation. The porousness of the frame to continuously taunts us, withholding visual information in the background or cutting and panning away from it. Bodies are always implicit in the image, whether they march towards us from its deepest reaches—like the blurry old woman—or remain concealed in the offscreen space. The feeling is one of dread—an endless, abject fear that offers neither reprieve nor strategy.
Simplicity, of course, is the governing principle here. Mitchell demonstrates the enormous power of two staring human eyes and an autonomic body: the empty gaze is captured with the kind of sharp clarity one expects to find in the films of German horror pioneers Robert Wiene and F. W. Murnau. However, the subtle generic revisions It Follows performs are most clearly revealed if we compare it to a different kind of cinematic horror: the zombie film. In such movies the heroes are also confronted with a perambulatory threat: the inhuman zombies slowly and methodically pursue their human targets (for it is usually a group), and consecutively murder each of them. But zombie films rely on confrontation: the protagonists invariably find shelter by the film’s second act, then spend the duration mounting a series of counteroffensives against the horde—usually from a farmhouse or shopping centre that has been claimed as a bridgehead. It Follows simplifies this schema. Instead of a group of characters under threat, the target is one girl (the thing only follows one person at a time, and so her friends are not targets); and instead of a horde of undead creatures there is a single—albeit shape-shifting—presence. But the crucial distinction between Mitchell’s film and a George A. Romero zombie picture is their approach to confrontation: zombies attack and, ipso facto, can be destroyed with acts of violence. Conversely, Mitchell’s thing (that is, the thing that follows: I don’t want to call it a monster) seems to do nothing. And because it does nothing, nothing can be done to it.
The strength of the referent as a principle for horror derives from its inversion of the very genre to which it applies: instead of running from a creature, fighting it off, we—and the characters with us—begin to automatically perceive and actively seek it in the film. That is to say, It Follows repurposes the quotidian in service of the grotesque: however much the thing’s form changes, it always assumes a human shape, dressed in pedestrian clothes. We start to find the stalker in every crowd, in every background, in every scene, shot and shadow. In removing all details from the thing that follows, Mitchell turns the entire world of the film into the malevolent force Nabokov describes, fraying our ontological categories until everything seems to connect in wild patterns of dread. As such, the film is suffused with clever manipulations of busy streets and crowds, making tormentors out of a young girl walking across a soccer pitch or a student arriving at school.
Every great horror narrative simultaneously attracts and repels allegory. Think of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and the way that that story seduces and affronts any one simple metaphorical uncovering. It Follows recodes a schlocky urban legend using the mechanisms of allegory, but it is never itself completely allegorical. Sex, for example, provides both narrative impetus and moral drama, automatically inviting comparisons to the sociocultural factors influencing the transmission of sexual diseases. But the film complicates this reading by allowing the characters to actively deploy sex as a strategy: their sexuality does not control or follow them, nor does it serve a stigmatizing function, as it does in body horror and slasher movies. Likewise, the lack of parental intervention may suggest analogies to orphanhood, dispossession or divorce, but the film intercepts these rubrics too. It insinuates the fragments in Jay’s familial structure—particularly emphasising her father’s absence—but this disclosure is impressively restrained. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film is indebted to Kafka, the quintessential writer of this kind of anti-parable; and in It Follows, as in The Metamorphosis, to quote Walter Benjamin, “there are two ways to miss the point… one is to interpret them naturally, the other is the supernatural interpretation.” Both recognize the need for myth, but synthesize it with an uncertain naturalism.
This balance is elusive, however, and the film occasionally misunderstands the power of its own premise. Because the thing is made frightening by virtue of its inertia it is therefore a mistake to animate it as an aggressive force. Unfortunately, this is what Mitchell does in a scene in the film’s second act when the characters are actually attacked on the beach by one of its manifestations, with Jay’s friends trying to repulse it with guns. Indeed the climactic scene—involving an elaborate plan to trap and kill it in a public pool—reads as an aberration within the larger work. The few scenes that portray the characters fighting the thing only serve to attenuate its powers of horror, because they suggest that it can be deferred, apprehended or destroyed, when what scares us as an audience is the certainty that such strategies are hopeless, that our fate is both delayed and imminent, certain and contingent.
Despite its momentary lapses into unnecessary confrontation, It Follows is a dark and intelligent experience, simultaneously immobilizing the viewer and rendering her frenzied with interpretive paranoia. It’s not a monster movie, nor is it quite psychological thriller or body horror (though it is built on the epistemic framework of these subgenres). Or rather, it is all of these, yet is distinguished by the commitment to its central concern—the perfect dread of not knowing. Of not knowing what’s after you, but being sure that something definitely is.